The day a rancher ships his or her cattle to market is a special day. It is, after all, the only day of the year you get paid. All year long you budget, skimp, and save while tending to your heard and hoping the market doesn’t deal you a blow. You wonder if you signed a contract for a price too early or too late. And then there’s the fear something happens on the day you ship. You pray no animals or workers are hurt.
I was hired this weekend to make photographs of cowboys on a ranch near Hays, Montana as a herd of cattle was rounded up and sold on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. This was a very traditional Native American Indian family, but one who also ranches. Upon my arrival I was invited to join them as they started the morning with breakfast and an Indian prayer. In a ceremony called smudging, a mixture of plants were placed in a bowl and lit. Smudging is a traditional ceremony where a smoke bath is created to cleanse the body and remove any negative energy. On this Native American Indian ranch it was also used to pray for a safe and productive day as the ranchers shipped their cattle to market.
As the sun crested the horizon, the whole family saddled up and my opportunity to make some photos of cowboy (and Indian) culture began. A small herd near their home was first rounded up and then we traveled many miles into the interior of Fort Belknap Indian Reservation to what was surely one of the most pristine and beautiful prairie landscapes in all of Montana. There the cattle was rounded up, separated, and loaded onto trailers, after which those animals were taken to a scale, weighed, and sold to a waiting buyer.
These are just some of the many photos I made that day; 20 photos of Fort Belknap cowboys on shipping day. And like it is for all Montana’s cattle ranchers, it’s the only pay day they will see all year.